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(Ticket) System of a Down

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At The Tilehurst End we’ve received a few emails and a fair number of tweets at about Reading’s ticketing arrangements for the Play-Off final, so we thought we’d take a look at what’s been good and what’s been bad about these, three days into tickets sales. The club received a lot of criticism for decisions they made prior to the FA Cup Quarter-Final with Manchester City, so just how do the decisions they made before this match stand up?

Firstly, though, let’s remind ourselves of the enormity of the problem they faced.  We beat Cardiff to secure the play-off final place against Swansea less than 13 days before the play-off final, so that’s less than 13 days to sell 39,002 tickets.  And not only did they have to sell them in that timescale, they had to do so in a way which kept everyone happy – including all those who might feel that someone else was being given priority in the queue for tickets then they deserved!

To make this happen the club made three key decisions about the timing and distribution of ticket sales.   Let’s look at each of these in turn.

The first decision was the timing of tickets for sale, and the decision to sell tickets in three tranches – firstly for season ticket holders for two days (two tickets each season ticket), then to member card holders for the next two days (one ticket per member card) and then general sale to anyone (four tickets per person).

I’d say this has been pretty successful, all in all – but there is a possible way it could have been improved.   There has been no use of “Royalty Points” within the selling process, since holding a season ticket is the only qualification criteria here.  Personally, I don’t have much of a problem with this, and all credit to the club for including those who have bought a season ticket for next season in this category.  I also don’t have a problem with allowing season ticket holders to buy two tickets per season ticket – it’s a nice way to reward season ticket holders for their loyalty and investment, and it allows them to introduce Reading FC to someone potentially new – someone who might just stick with us in future. 

But perhaps there was some mileage in doing something with Royalty Points – if nothing else this would spread out the demand slightly, which could have easily been done within a two-day selling window for each category of buyers.   There were reportedly 12,000 tickets sold on the first day of sales, then another 6,500 sold on the second day, which was the last day of sales exclusively to season ticket holders.  Then, on day three, with tickets now on sale to member card holders, approximately 12,500 were sold, making the total 31,000.  By all accounts the mornings of days one and three have been absolutely manic, but late on day two people could stroll up and by a ticket in double-quick time.  Clever use of Royalty Points to spread out the demand would certainly have been a good idea, because, as we’ll see shortly, this level of demand has caused significant problems together with widespread stress and angst for many supporters. 

Moving on to the selling of tickets at the Madejski Stadium, by all accounts this has gone very well, with queues efficiently organised and signs and directions well done.  There are just two observations to make on what has generally been a well-organised and professional process.   The first is that tickets were sold by price category, so that buyers didn’t have a choice of which block they were in, just the price category they wanted to buy in.  This of course reduces the choice available to supporters, especially those who either want/don’t want to be in the blocks designated as “singing areas” – blocks  131-135.   With this system, what you get depends on when you buy tickets. 

While I don’t particularly like this decision, I fully understand the reasons for it.  When you’re trying to process large queues of ticket-buyers, with a relatively small team of ticket windows and staff members, you can’t afford to have umming and ahhing and faffing about looking at seating plans, with staff then having to find the chosen tickets from the appropriate piles of thousands of tickets.  Far quicker and easier to give each ticket seller a pile of tickets and just sell the next tickets from the top of the pile, moving onto the next pile when the previous one is sold out.  Choice of blocks would have been a nice touch, but would have severely slowed down the whole process, and this choice was available through the on-line sales process – again, more of that later. 

The other suggestion relates to the number of widows per ticket category – Keith who emailed The Tilehurst End reported that when he was there “the dozen East stand windows were divided up equally between two prices, one of which was very unpopular and only ever had 3 people and his dog in. The other was several hundred long.”  So perhaps a better estimate of ticket demand could have been made, or the number of ticket widows for each price category changed as the day went on and it became clear where the demand split was.   But it really would be churlish to criticise – all in all the selling of tickets at the MadStad was well oiled and relatively painless, and much improved on ticket sales in the past. 

The same can’t be said of the online and phone selling options, which was sub-contracted to an external ticket agency called Ticketzone.  I’ve been unable to discover if this was Reading FC’s decision or if it was forced onto them by The Football League or by Wembley, but I suspect the latter, since Swansea are also using the same agency, and it has been used by previous play-off qualifiers.  In fact, in 2009 a Burnley supporter called Ticketzone a “dodgy, shoddy, Micky Mouse third-rate ticket website” – and that seems to be the experience of a great many Reading supporters. 

You’d think that the basic qualities of any company running on-line ticket sales– especially high-demand, high volume on-line tickets – would be a robust, well-written website capable of handling the capacity required.  But a common theme from Reading ticket-buyers seems is of experiencing multiple, unexplained, system errors – usually after selecting the seats they want to purchase.  This has been massively frustrating for those encountering it – and many people have been in a frustrating  loop of constant retries before they get onto the website, and then crashing out halfway through buying tickets.  Tales of 2-3 hours and great stress and frustration are common. 

To me, it seems that this is a sloppy piece of coding – I suspect that when the site is very busy, a buyer “reserves” tickets but as the system moves to the next step it finds that someone else has bought those tickets and throws an “unexplained error” wobbly.  Royals supporters have been swapping messages about deleting cookies or changing web browsers, and the Ticketzone website says “We suggest you clear your internet cache and history before proceeding with your booking.”  Should people really have to do this – assuming they know how to?  People want to connect, log on and buy, without anything technical or unexplained happening – and they want to be able to do it first time.   For a high-volume, ticket-selling website not to be able to cope with high volumes of ticket-buyers makes it not fit-for-purpose, and it’s outrageous that supporters have to put up with this, especially when it’s clearly nothing new.  It’s also inexcusable for any website to just throw a customer out with “unexplained error” messages.   Don’t these people test ther icode or know anything about capacity planning?   

It’s 2011, and on-line ticket sales aren’t anything new, so why is the person who gave this business to Ticketzone still in a job?   And, just to add insult to injury, Ticketzone charge supporters a fee of £2.95 a ticket for the privilege of suffering their website.  It’s bad enough paying a service charge on top of already extortionate ticket prices – what really rankles is when the “service” you’re paying for is so piss-poor!  Or is the assumption “they’re just football supporters – they won’t care about being inconvenienced as long as they get a ticket in the end?

Experiences of sales via Ticketzone’s phone sales lines are mixed.  There are countless stories of multiple redials followed by long waits before being connected, but conversely the experience once connected is very positive, with very helpful and knowledgeable sales agents.   But again, tales of several hours spent in pursuit of buying tickets by phone are not uncommon.   So fine, but only once you get through! 

But there is one major concern in the 0844 number being used.  After a lot of internet searching, I’ve managed to find that this 0844 249 is classed by BT as a “g6 - Calls not including Internet Services” number, and so is charged at 5.105p per minute, plus VAT, at all times.  So a 30 minute call would cost £1.84, and many people report calls much longer than that.  I also dread to think what the cost from mobiles would be – certainly many times higher.

Now, I understood that it was the law that suppliers using higher-rate phone lines had to properly communicate call charges, but there’s no mention of the call charges on either Ticketzone or Reading FC’ s websites.  Even if it’s not a legal requirement, surely it’s basic good manners  and an example of how to communicate professionally, so a very big minus on that one, and it further enhances the impression that the whole exercise of using Ticketzone is one designed to separate supporters from their money.  I’d very much like to know who benefits from all these service and call charges.

I’ll summarise this by awarding marks out of 10 for each of the above decisions :

Timing and categories of ticket sales :  9/10 (the point lost for not using Royalty Points to spread out demand slightly)

Selling of tickets at the MadStad :  9/10 (but 10/10 for the ticket office staff themselves who by all accounts have done a sterling job under high pressure.

The decision to use Ticketzone : 1/10 (and I’d like to hear the person who made this decision explain their justification for this!)  Oh, and the one point is awarded before people actually have tickets delivered – that’s a whole part of the process that we’re taking on trust at this stage!

What are you experiences?  And would you agree with our analysis?  Please comment below or email us at thetilehurstend@gmail.com